read 5 min

Dear Sir/Madam,

Welcome to Nepal: I hope you enjoy your time here working for your development organisation. Sorry for the pollution here in Kathmandu but Nepal does have good schools for your children, several fine viewtowers and lavish farmer’s markets with internationally-recognised cheese. I expect that you don’t have much reading time but here is some brief advice to help you during your stay:

1) Firstly, Nepal is not a fragile, failed, failing or even a frail state, despite what annual rankings say. It is the oldest state in South Asia and the state is much more resilient (to use one of your own popular terms) than it first appears. It has obvious problems but it all depends on where you look from – try to start by understanding why some parts still work despite the chaos. And if you must speak out on corruption at least acknowledge that it remains a problem in most of your own countries too, as this letter suggests.

2) Be aware that Nepal has had a 70 year plus history with the international development world. Your programmes have usually been tried before by someone, somewhere. You will, inevitably, have to implement currently fashionable buzzwords and theories. But bear in mind that everyone here knows how to play the development game including the government, who will say the right things about whichever new fad or trend you bring over here in your luggage.

3) Nepal is an extreme patriarchy. It might not seem like that at first – women appear to be free to walk around and are not covered up – but look closer at gender norms. Citizenship issues, chaupadi, and domestic violence are just the external symptoms of a deeper, state-supported and ingrained misogyny. But be careful about looking to the mainstream women’s right’s movement for answers, as it has ignored the diversity of women in Nepal.

4) There is another Himalayan range in Nepal – the mountains of unread development reports. Try not to add to them and do make use of what your predecessors have already commissioned. If you absolutely must build more report mountains then do read what they say and share them with the Nepali public.

5) The solution to Nepal’s development problems is not always more aid, money or training and awareness-raising. And don’t do things just because your headquarters says so. Your approach or issue won’t solve everything and may do more harm than good or have unintended consequences. Your taxpayers will appreciate restraint and so will Nepalis.

6) Don’t blame local partners for everything and act like the schoolteacher scolding the naughty children. Respect and trust local partners. Staff in your partner organisations often lead very different lives from you even though you live in the same country. Think about their local conditions and the consequent time it might take to get things done here. I’m not talking about ‘Nepali time’, just their actual reality. Understand too that you have helped create unhealthy donor-partner dynamics and it can be changed.

7) Despite what some critics inside Nepal suggest, development organisations are not all-powerful. Be realistic about how and when change is achieved and by whom. You have much less power to achieve change than you think. If the government doesn’t want to do something, then it won’t. What influence you do have is usually watered down in compromises between donors, the public and the government. Change can happen very slowly in Nepal, it can happen completely out of the blue, and it can have nothing to do with donors.

8) But this all isn’t an excuse for doing nothing. You do have influence on some topics: try to work out what they are. Understand that you are missing out on a lot by mostly staying in certain parts of Kathmandu, sticking to English all day and not reading local publications. Do talk to people, ask questions, read widely, remain curious. Understand the limitations of sanitised field visits organised by your partners.

9) Dare to escape the expat bubble and venture beyond Sanepa, Jhamsikhel, and Lazimpat. Even in Kathmandu many people struggle for basics like water and good roads. You don’t need to go to a remote village to be immersed in ‘real’ Nepal: just squeeze into public transport and head to a corner somewhere outside the ring road.

10) Read some critics of the aid industry in Nepal. Try to read about Nepal’s history too. Contrary to popular belief among some of you history here did not start after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement or with the new constitution.

11) Think about which caste and ethnicities show up in your meetings and which don’t. And the social history that explains that. Why do some groups work in donor offices and some work as your household help? Bear in mind too that almost nobody defines themselves as elites here, even the actual elites. But a warning: if you do raise social inclusion issues in your work there is good chance you could be Pennered. Don’t believe all the stories about why donors should stay away from inclusion (in the dominant tale your organisations introduced it in order to divide Nepal). For a quiet life its better to stick to important but risk-free speeches about the empowerment of young women, as only gender is a safe topic now

12) But no one is stopping you recruiting a more diverse set of staff inside your own organisations. It isn’t that hard to be truly meritocratic if you look beyond your usual recruitment channels and there are examples of organisations who did a better job. At a minimum, be aware that your Nepali colleagues didn’t all get their jobs because they are the best of the best.

13) Your Nepali colleagues should be part of offices where they feel able to challenge you and not agree to everything you say. Some of you have recognized that your own Nepali colleagues are more than able to work in international posts outside Nepal. But why do most of you persist in the colonial-era distinction between local and foreign staff?

14) On that note, you should treat your household help well too. Having other humans do that kind of labour – as didis, drivers and guards – for you is basically feudal and unheard of in most of your own countries. You can make a strange situation ever so slightly better by treating your staff with respect, not suspicion or anger. Word gets around Kathmandu and Patan and the thing you are most likely to be remembered for here in a few years time (lets call it your legacy!) is how well you treated your staff. Also, aren’t you supposed to improve the lives of the poor?

15) The current political situation is shaped by a) resurgent conservative nationalism b) a continuing backlash against social inclusion and c) opposition to any form of meaningful transitional justice. Understand these factors and their implications for your programmes and you will have already understood more than most of your peers.

16) People really, really get annoyed by your big fancy cars. They constipate the streets. Consider switching to those small electric ones like some of you already do.

17) Lastly and most importantly: You and I don’t have all the answers to Nepal’s questions or even half of them. One Nepali writer said “trying to make sense of Nepal is a long and difficult process.” That remains true and some humility would be appreciated by everyone.

I rest my pen. Have a good stay!


A well-wisher